Kimberly Vrudny

Archive for the ‘Xenophobia’ Category

Xenophobia / Xenophilia

In HIV/AIDS, Public Health, South Africa, Structural Drivers of the Pandemic, Xenophilia, Xenophobia on August 11, 2010 at 1:00 am

Last year, more than sixty people died as a result of xenophobia in South Africa. Typically, xenophobia refers to the unreasonable suspicion, distrust, or even hatred of foreigners. Although factors contributing to the xenophobic violence in South Africa are complex, it is clear in every report about it that tensions are running high because the country is experiencing unemployment rates nationwide of about 40%, a rate which soars above 70% in many so-called “coloured” and “black” townships established during apartheid, and in the informal settlements and shantytowns that continue to build up around them. Tensions erupted in 2008 when perceptions circulated that “foreigners” were taking jobs that could go to native-born citizens, creating a distrust that was fueled by accusations that drug trafficking was largely attributable to immigrants who, it was alleged, were bringing illegal substances across the border when they entered the country. These rumors caused immigrants in South Africa to become targets of attacks that captured the world’s attention in 2008.

In order to provide a sense of the scope and brutality of the attacks, consider an excerpt from this article published 19 May 2008 in the Mail & Guardian Online (Africa’s first internet-based news source begun in 1994, reputable internationally for quality reporting from inside Africa):

[P]olice recovered the hacked body parts of a Malawian national on a sandy road in Ramaphosa township and, near Primrose, one person with Mozambican identification papers in his pocket was found dead. Two other Mozambicans were seriously beaten.

In Zamimpilo, outside Riverlea on the West Rand, at least 50 shacks were burned. Foreign nationals in the area were taken to safety at a community centre.

In Kya Sands, an industrial area close to informal settlements, groups of people began throwing stones at each other after a community meeting, but the situation was brought under control, said police spokesperson Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini.

In the Jerusalem informal settlement, near Boksburg, police came under fire as they tried to stop a group of about 500 people from looting shops there.

Police in Cape Town were identifying possible flashpoints for xenophobic violence and would have units on standby, the city administration said on Monday.

These summary reflections by journalists for the Mail & Guardian about the week’s unrest, and the article in full, point to a further tragic dimension of the xenophobic violence in South Africa. The crimes are directed against those who are already suffering in townships and informal settlements where sometimes people are living in cardboard and tin-covered shacks built on nothing but dirt. An immigration status adds another degree of jeopardy to already jeopardized lives. Indeed, many of those who continue to flee here are leaving terrible and terrifying conditions, most arriving today from Zimbabwe and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). They come here hopeful that they might find the refuge to which their designation as refugees attests—an illusion that is often broken swiftly when they enter a country with high rates of unemployment. On top of this, they too read the chilling words of those arrested for conducting the attacks, and the attempt of those involved to justify their activities. One unemployed man, for example, from his jail cell after he was arrested for destroying a few shacks in the Gauteng Province (in which Johannesburg and Soweto are located), is reported to have said, “We will keep on going; [the police] can’t stop us. . . . Foreigners are taking our jobs and our wives.”

Imagine, then, the increased anxiety felt by those immigrants who come with an HIV-positive status, or who acquire HIV once they have crossed the border. Their costume, accent, and location may already “target” them as “foreign.” To add fuel to the fire, in societies where all sexual subjects are taboo, word about an HIV infection present in the body of a refugee can fan the flame of violence all too ready to erupt.

Indeed, the issue of stigma was an omnipresent reality during my time at the Scalabrini Centre. The staff discussed with me how their clients often felt vulnerable, such that even coming to the HIV support group was difficult for them. When I presented the project to the members of the support group and invited each one to participate, two women made reference to the stigma of an infection when they politely and understandably declined the offer. Although two of my subjects permitted me to photograph their faces, one kept hers hidden for fear of being identified in her community. And all three asked that their names be kept absolutely confidential. Though one mindlessly wrote it nevertheless in the journal entry, I have used Photoshop to erase it from the subject’s journal page on the still life in order to honor the subject’s request for some degree of anonymity.

Of course, xenophobia is not the only option. Jesus himself drew on the ancient laws in his own Jewish tradition when Matthew records him to say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36). The tradition upon which he was drawing was written in the ancient Israelite Code of Law: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizens among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:35-36).

All of this is to say that the Judeo-Christian tradition advocates against xenophobia in preference for “xenophilia”—a love and a deep, abiding respect for the inherent dignity of the foreigner in our midst. Certainly political questions become rapidly complex as priorities are juggled with limited Rands, Dollars, and the rest to be allocated to relieve varying competing and significant needs—but as “People of the Book,” these verses should guide our deliberations. First and foremost, we are called to recognize the “strangers” in our presence as also created in the image of God (imago Dei), possessing by virtue of their very existence a dignity that is absolute—a dignity that is inviolable.


Scalabrini Centre

In HIV/AIDS, Non-profits / NGOs, South Africa, Xenophilia, Xenophobia on August 10, 2010 at 2:15 am
Immigrants to Cape Town, including refugees and asylum seekers, often have needs that are not uniformly and cordially met by governmental agencies and welfare programs set up to serve citizens, an observation made long ago by John Baptist Scalabrini who, in 1887, founded the Scalabrini Order in order to serve the welfare of migrants. More specifically, because millions of Italians were fleeing from Italy in the closing decades of the 1900s as crushing poverty coincided with political strife as the Holy See and newly formed Italian state were hammering out their differences, a priest by the name of Giovanni Battista (John Baptist) Scalabrini became concerned that his parishioners were in danger when they left for America without money, jobs, or knowledge of English. He felt compelled to assist his parishioners in their efforts to migrate, first by writing for them letters of introduction which they could carry with them, to deliver to a priest on the other side of the ocean wherever and whenever they settled. Once he was installed as Bishop, his social activism progressed:

In the next few years, while emigration continued to increase in the face of continued Italian poverty, the bishop involved himself in several large projects to help the poor. Scalabrini established a society to aid the mondine, impoverished women harvesting rice in the paddies of northern Italy. He also opened an institute for the deaf and mute in his diocese. During the famine year of 1879, he turned his episcopal residence into a soup kitchen, dishing out 4,000 bowls of soup each day, selling his horses and even a bejeweled cup, a gift of the pope, to keep the soup kettles boiling. But the immigration question kept preying on his mind (Robb).

Soon, the Bishop would write to the Vatican to request permission to form a religious Order devoted to the care of emigrants from Italy. His charter included the objectives to protect emigrants, assist migrants in finding work, provide migrants with material aid, fight human trafficking, and offer religious guidance. Today, the Scalabrinians are present in over 30 countries, and have more than 600 religious, both male and female, on the rolls of the Order. Their mission worldwide is “to safeguard the dignity and the rights of migrants, refugees, seafarers, itinerants, and people on the move.”

The Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town welcomes refugees and asylum seekers coming to South Africa primarily from Zimbabwe and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), because of war and unstable economic conditions being faced by these countries north of the border. The Centre welcomes newcomers to the city through its weekly welcoming program which offers material support in the form of food parcels, clothes, and blankets. The Centre also links refugees with social services available in the city, operates an employment help desk, offers courses in English and digital literacy, runs a sewing laboratory to help women start sustainable businesses as tailors, and prepares food in its soup kitchen, also for displaced and homeless people. Finally, the Centre also oversees the Lawrence House, “a place of hope . . . where refugee children can regain their childhood and prepare for their future.”

Since it opened in 1994, the Centre has grown increasingly aware that where there is migration, there is HIV/AIDS. In response, the Centre has added programs to increase awareness about the virus in the refugee community and how to prevent infection. In addition to offering workshops on HIV/AIDS awareness and management, the Centre provides testing and counseling through a support group to enable those who have tested positive to share their stories, struggles, and insights with other immigrants to South Africa who, like them, are living with a positive status.

While my family and I have been in South Africa, we have gotten involved with the Scalabrini Centre in three ways: we’ve served meals in the Scalabrini’s soup kitchen during the welcoming program on Wednesday mornings; together, too, we’ve volunteered to cook meals on Saturday evenings for the children at the Lawrence House (the Scalabrini Centre’s home for orphaned and abandoned children). Lastly, for the past month, I’ve visited the HIV/AIDS support group weekly to listen to what is on the minds of refugees to Cape Town who are living with HIV/AIDS.

The stories I’ve heard, in session and in the corridors of the Centre, are painful to be sure—but there is an indomitability to the human spirit that is almost tangible in this place. This was especially evident one morning when I waited for the HIV/AIDS support group to assemble. Seated in the reception area, I introduced myself to the only other person who had come early—a woman who had fled, I learned, from the Congo six years earlier. As we engaged in conversation, she shared with me how she had witnessed the death of her husband. He had been shot, she told me, and when “they” came, referring to the men with guns, everyone ran. It happened so fast that she became separated from three of her four children. She, along with her then three-year-old daughter, fled to South Africa. They were joined in Cape Town sometime later by the woman’s mother, who had found the other children and emigrated with them. Subsequently, the woman learned she was HIV-positive. She had a baby six months ago. The test for the baby’s HIV status had just come back negative, she shared with me when we spoke, moving her hand to her heart in thanksgiving. But, she whispered, “I’m still suffering. There is no work. And I have to feed my baby formula. I cannot afford to buy can after can of baby formula.”

The three people I met through the Scalabrini Centre who are featured here likewise share in their journals complicated stories, where gratefulness is evident alongside sorrow for what has been lost, for what has been left behind. In their own words, they have responded to my invitation to share what they want people to know about them and their perceptions of HIV thirty years into the pandemic.

The Scalabrini Centre is doing important work that recognizes the inherent dignity of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in South Africa; please support its HIV/AIDS program if you are able. For more information about the work of the Scalabrinians, see: